Tlicho author disheartened school board doesn't recommend his books to students

'It's disheartening that in this time of truth and reconciliation that there's these lists that are going around about books that are a little too difficult to talk about,' says Richard Van Camp.

2 of Richard Van Camp's novels were not recommended for classrooms in Edmonton due to mature content

Richard Van Camp's novels The Lesser Blessed and Path of the Warrior were among those on a "Books to Weed Out" list on the Edmonton Public Schools' book review website that was taken down this week. (Laughing Dog Photography)

A well-known Tlicho author says he's shocked two of his books were among those not recommended for use in Edmonton classrooms.

Richard Van Camp said he learned his novel The Lesser Blessed, about an Indigenous youth overcoming abuse, and his graphic novel Path of the Warrior, about gang violence prevention, were on a list titled "Books to Weed Out" on Edmonton Public Schools' book review site Wednesday morning. 

"It's disheartening that in this time of truth and reconciliation that there's these lists that are going around about books that are a little too difficult to talk about,"  he said.

Richard Vam Camp says while The Lesser Blessed was published in 1996, it still resonates with young readers.

"What you're doing is you're removing the compassion and the wanting to understand from students," said Van Camp. "This happened in our country and the fallout we see in every community, town, city in Canada right now, we are all in the shadows of those motherships called residential schools."

The site, which has since been taken down, had not recommended The Lesser Blessed due to "mature content and sensitive subject matter." Based in the fictional town of Fort Simmer, N.W.T., the novel, published in 1996, follows a Tlicho teenager who is a second generation residential school survivor.

It was also made into a film that was released in 2012.

Van Camp said he understands the book may be difficult to teach, but that in the 23 years since it was published people still tell him, "this was the one book that spoke to my reality of growing up in a small northern town."

"That has been the one thing that's carried to me to keep [writing] really difficult stories is the truth telling and sharing the song and sharing the genuine awe of our residential school survivors," he said.

Starting a dialogue

The author from Fort Smith, N.W.T., also said if teachers are nervous about reading these books with students, they can reach out to the authors. He said he often speaks to classrooms across the country.

"We'd be more than happy to answer any questions, and I think it's such a thrill for students to read something that's been labelled a little risky or a little dangerous," he said. "But the reason it's been labelled that is because there's a lot of truth inside of it and you know what they say ... if they call you a so-and-so disturber there was so-and-so to disturb."

Van Camp noted that many of the other books on the list are by well-known Indigenous and Métis authors he admires, including David Alexander Robertson, Jennifer Storm and Steven Sanderson.

"I'm in good company because if I'm being banned with Jennifer Storm and Steven Sanderson and Governor General-award-winning David Robertson, then we're in a good place," he said.

Book site backlash

The website came under fire earlier this week after Robertson, a member of Norway House Cree Nation, questioned why some of his works and those by other Indigenous authors were on the "Books to Weed Out" list.

Author David Robertson raised concerns about the book review website for not recommending works by a number of Indigenous and Métis authors. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The site had not recommended Robertson's graphic novel series 7 Generations, which follows an Indigenous family from the 19th century to the present, for containing "sensitive subject matter and visual inferencing of abuse regarding residential schools."

In a written statement, a spokesperson for Edmonton Public Schools said some books were highlighted for "the ways in which they portrayed First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, imagery or language."

"The intention was not to suggest these books be made unavailable, but to help educators make informed decisions around how they could use the resources," the statement reads. "Unfortunately, the language used for the title of this section did not reflect its intent."

The statement also said the site is "several years out of date" and is now under review.

With files from Loren McGinnis